From our mountain retreat called The Glass House, we overlook the Victoria Dam, which is some 30 minutes from Kandy in central Sri Lanka. Behind the water we see the Knuckles range of mountains. There are some 34 mountains though we can see only seven or eight. So, for about ten years we have shared this view with many friends in the cloudy mornings, baking hot days to nighttime lights and full moons. It takes an Aussie couple from Singapore visiting us to organize a guided tour of the Knuckles. Amreesh, pre books and pays for the tour and at 7am in the morning we wait at the gates of the Victoria Golf Club for the expert guide, a botanist and well-spoken bilingual man in this area to appear. Instead we get Shani, with a bandana round his head, who speaks no English and mutters in Sinhalese as he crunches through the gears of an aging Nissan Patrol Jeep.
After about 45 minutes we hit the town of Rangala, which almost sounds like a cowboy town in the Wild West, but not so. A little further up the mountain we are in a little community, “one horse town” as my dad would call it, lying at the last altitude of tea estates and line houses in the area. We then head further up the mountain and our experienced driver hovers in the middle of the road and takes evasive action on a regular basis as we face on coming tuk tuks driven by like-minded suicidal locals. As the Jeep hurtles round the bends the driver looks at anyone who talks to him, taking his eyes of the road. We arrive at a smart house on a hill in a little hamlet and the Nissan grinds to a halt. Via a few Sinhalese words from Amaresh we gather we are doing a circular walk of about four hours to a waterfall. We are all well booted, as we have read this is one of the toughest walks on the island and have anti leech plastic leggings. Shani says it’s not the season for leeches, but we will prove him wrong by the end of day on this and a few other things.
We pass some houses and the kids come out and shout “bye” instead of “Hi”. A brown and white cross breed dog with a collar on comes and joins us for the trek. At each stage the of the walk the dog runs ahead stands on a rock or high ground as we pass him, it’s like something out of a movie, as though he is guiding us and looking out for us on the walk, he stays with us the full five hours of the walk.
We climb about 1000 ft initially through discarded tea plantations then into the forest where the path becomes a bit harder and then through the trees on a track up and down till, we get to a beautiful waterfall with a ledge open to the mountains and trees below us. We rest and have some biscuits and water to help build up our strength for the next leg. Moving on and upwards we are in rough terrain needing all four limbs and some good luck, it is physically challenging, and you need someone in front to pull you up and someone behind to give a push when needed.
We don’t get the detailed commentary as we walk through the Knuckles Forest Reserve which is a UNESCO site but pass masses of flowers and bushes and trees that we would like to know more about. This area has masses of flora and fauna. In terms of wildlife its quite disappointing, though we find fresh leopard poo, or so Shani tells us.
Other than that, its only two lizards and a wild fowl and some small birds we can hear but not see. The descending walk takes us onto a rock plateau with spectacular views. This Forrest has the reputation of being the toughest of walks in Sri Lanka, and guides are mandatory. The climb down is also taxing as each step is a decision, given loose rocks, different drops, water hazards, and your body’s own downward momentum.
We ask Shani if we are on a circular route and he confirms we are, 30 minutes later we are back on the same track we had come up on.
“How far now,” we ask.
“Not far” we think is the answer, there is another 90 minutes of walking, however. We get back to our starting point and enjoy a late local rice and curry lunch in an immaculate clean house of a local family. Meanwhile one of our party, reaching some depths of fatigue goes off in search of a coke, with no shop in sight but surprisingly returns with bottle in hand.
After five hours of grueling walking we are all quiet in the Jeep as we head back on the twisting roads to Victoria passing the school kids all smartly dressed in their blue and white outfits walking home. So good to see that Sri Lanka has maintained the school uniform system but disappointing that its teaching methods are still so outdated.
We no doubt will return to Knuckles. There is another 250 square kilometers for us to trek in, but it will be essential to have competent guide.